It was a Friday night in February and my brother and I were seated in his turquoise Subaru, driving north on Highway 101. We were driving to our parents’ home, something we had done together dozens of times. But this time was different, though no one but the two of us could have known that anything was wrong, for as we sat, we talked, casually, punctuating the darkness with superficial conversation.
It wasn’t until we were a few blocks from the house that my brother asked me if I had any idea what was going on. I took a deep breath and let it out, verbalizing the compilation of so many years of thoughts and hunches and suspicions.
“I think dad cheated on mom,” I began. “With another man.”
The silence was so sudden, so stark; it was as though I could hear his jaw drop. He shot me an incredulous look across the front seat, not wanting to think of the possibility, much less the ramifications, of my words. But he could sense conviction in my voice. If there’s one thing he ever gave me credit for, it was the fact that I never said something unless I really truly believed it.
I’m not entirely certain when I realized my dad was gay, only that it had been a long time coming. Like a lot of things in life, it was “complicated.” I think I knew for a long time, always possessing a sense of the true, unmasked reality of things in my subconscious, but I can’t really pinpoint the moment when it clicked in my head. There was no flurried instant of realization where the fact of his gayness dawned on me suddenly. Yet it did not come as a shock when he finally exposed it. Instead, it revealed itself to me gradually, over many years, spurred on by little fragments that served as pieces of a puzzle, much larger and far more complicated than I could ever have solved in one sitting.
The fleeting instances in which the homosexuality revealed itself manifested as the off-hand remark from a friend’s mother, exclaiming that my father had such a soft and feminine side to him. Or there were the moments when his ears seemed to perk up at the mention of a homosexual friend of mine who had been discriminated against or displaced from a family home — in these situations, there was always a touch of empathy in his voice, discernible only if one knew what to listen for.
Sure, there was the time when he had too much to drink at a wedding and I witnessed him embracing another man a little too affably. There was also the instance when I surprised him by walking into his office, unannounced, and the second-guessing to come afterward, wondering if he was trolling the Casual Encounters on Craigslist in the instant before he minimized the browser window, or if that was just my imagination.
Even then, with all the uncertainty, I think a part of me knew, yet merely refused, to acknowledge it. It wasn’t that I couldn’t deal with having a gay dad. It was more a question of if anyone else in my family could swallow the idea whole. Certainly gay dads were a novelty, but not the kind of novelty my family wanted or needed. That aside, how exactly does a teenage daughter go about having the “I think dad is gay” conversation with her mother, particularly when there is no solid proof? It’s awkward and confusing and carries with it the potential to destroy a relationship, either between the two parents, or between one of them and the child. So, I kept my foregone conclusions to myself, up until the day I was forced to ascertain them.
Earlier that day, I had received a phone call from my father. These things were a regular occurrence, my parents calling randomly throughout the week: my mother to tell me about a new recipe she had tried or something funny the cats did, my father to tell me about an amusing incident at work or a new joke he’d overheard. But this time was explicitly distinct from the moment I answered the phone, because my ears were met with choked-up silence. I could tell right away that my dad was in tears.
My thoughts immediately went to a horrible place — the place where car accidents and dead parents reside. But it wasn’t that, and I was temporarily relieved to learn my parents were both alive and unharmed. And then, the words that followed — so simple and so succinct — are what caused my heart to speed up and my stomach to churn:
“Your mother and I are calling a family meeting,” he told me.
The magnitude of that statement alone was distressing. The words “family meeting” held a meaning that signified that things were not okay, not in the least. When I asked him what was wrong, he struggled through breaths to form words, but failed to provide any, eventually hanging up.
Panic set in. Possibilities swarmed through my head, and I racked my brain for some kind of answer to the question of what had happened. But nothing came to mind.
I searched through my phone, landing upon my brother’s name, and hit “call.” When he answered, his silence told me he’d experienced a phone call similar to mine.
“Do you know what this is about?” he questioned.
I shook my head slowly, and in spite of not being able to see me, he somehow knew what I was doing.
“I’m coming up tonight,” he told me firmly, decidedly. “I’ll pick you up on the way.”
Once we arrived at the house, the details of the evening were a giant blur, streaking my thoughts and surrealistically engulfing my mind. My hunch turned out to be correct, for my father had indeed slept with another man. But he insisted he was bisexual, and that it wouldn’t end my parents’ more than 30-year-long marriage.
What I do remember is a lot of crying on the part of everyone. My father cried because he was finally free of his burden, but at the cost of hurting us all. My mother cried because her heart was broken and her love had begun to be overshadowed by anger and distrust. My sister cried because she believed being gay was a sin, and her father, a sinner, was now damned to Hell. My brother cried because his role model and vision of family turned out to be false. I cried because I had suspected, I had known, and I hadn’t done a thing about it.
And of all the kids, the fallout from this would have the most damaging effect on me. Perhaps because I was the closest, distance-wise, or maybe because my relationship with them was so strong, but my parents both began to confide in me, pitting me against one another, whether they knew it or not. Within weeks, I was in therapy, and this is when I had my first true epiphany surrounding the situation.
During our first session, while providing my therapist with an overview of the story, I told him that my dad was “gay.” But before I could continue on, he cut me off.
“Why did you do that?” he questioned, pointing slowly to my hands.
“Do what?” I asked.
“You put air quotes around the word gay,” he said.
And without skipping a beat, I said, “That’s because I don’t think he’s bisexual like he claims. I think he’s gay.”
Just like that, I was finally capable of comprehending the extremity of the lie and its ramifications. Over the course of a day, the façade of my secure, middle-class, nuclear-family existence transformed into an uncertain, unsettling and unfair reality I didn’t know how to face. “My dad is gay. My dad is gay. My dad is gay.” It echoed through my head like a mantra, only its effect was opposite and its reality was far from calming.
Ultimately, my dad’s sexual identity wasn’t the problem. Nearly everyone in the family saw nothing fundamentally wrong with being gay, and we knew it didn’t change him as a person, except perhaps that he was now free to embrace that persona. Only he didn’t, at least not in public, because he had become so accustomed to a life of pretending to be straight, that it was all he knew and all he wanted to know. It’s the least anyone expects in life: to be perceived as normal.
All of a sudden, without my consent, I too became a part of the lie and its perpetuation. My father had gone from keeping this secret to himself and divulged it to all of us. It was a shared responsibility, all of us now partaking in the charade of the perfect family. The illusion of normalcy that once defined me suddenly stood in opposition to me, and instead of facing it, I was not only forced to acknowledge to myself that I didn’t fit into that ideal anymore, but I still had to keep pretending I did.
It’s a lot easier for people to say that homosexuality is acceptable when it doesn’t directly touch them or their lives — when a friend comes out as gay, or a couple is seen holding hands in the street. But when it suddenly reveals itself to have existed all this time in the shadows of one’s own life, it changes everything. Especially when it wants to stay exposed, but societal pressures force it back into obscurity, back into the lie that everyone can tolerate.
Oscar Wilde once said that lying — telling beautiful untrue things — is the proper aim of art. He also said that nature and life imitate art, and not the other way around. I guess what it amounts to is that my life and the chimera I am forced to indulge in is just another one of those beautiful untrue things. When you have that, why bother facing the ugly truth?